Speechs (Text)

Buddha’s Message of Compassion and its centrality to the success of Development Democracy

September 7, 2019

(Text of the Address by Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe at SAMVAAD –III - Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)


Excellency Minister for Environment and Tourism of the Govt of Mongolia, Mr TSERENBAT Namsrai, venerable religious leaders and thinkers, scholars, academics and other ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a privilege to be invited here to address this important conference and I am thankful to the organisers for the same!

Social scientists in US are reportedly worried about the fact that millennial generation of their country appears to be thoroughly incapable of ability to empathies. In an atmosphere filled with ultra-individualism, for many in the Western part of the globe, world is not just becoming flat but also becoming more and more small. Many believe that the size of the world is limited to what they are exposed to. Happily, a software engineer in some other part of the world and worried about the lack of ability to empathies applied his creative mind and came out with an idea of a computer game which is known as Real Lives. It’s a game where once you enter you get a virtual life in any part of the globe, in any country on the earth. Depending upon the socio-economic conditions of that country, this virtual person faces challenges like famine, epidemic or floods and earthquakes. And while the player engages himself or herself in facing the unforeseen challenges, he or she also very naturally develops the ability to empathies.

We know, there are some developments that change the game and hence are called as game-changers, but here; the game itself is changing your way to think, to imagine the pain, to identify with the sufferers and also to empathies. I am happy to share that this software engineer is an Indian and his game Real Lives is not only becoming popular but also making a big impact!

Basic Human sensitivity is the mother of ability to empathies.  And the origin of sensitivity lies in Gautama Buddha’s Karuna or Compassion. COMPASSION OR KARUNA is the essential quality of a Bodhisattva. Karuna is also one of the four Brahma Viharas, or ‘sublime states’ Compassion indicates the qualities of the heart –love and respect for all living beings. MahaKarauna (Great Compassion) is the last of the 18 virtues of a Buddha. It became a high priority ideal with the rise of Mahayana Ideology from the first century C.E.

As pointed out by an academic in his short essay, * ‘Enlightened souls from all religions across the Globe seek to uplift human beings from their suffering. The greatness of Gautama; the Buddha, lies in the fact that he, for the first time in human history, made human suffering as the central point of his philosophical system. In fact, the first precept of his teaching is ‘everything is of the nature of suffering’ (sarvam duhkam, सर्वम् दुक्खम्) which is followed by the doctrine of twelve causes of human suffering known as dvādaśha nidāna (द्वादश निदान) which highlights the fact of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path to be followed to overcome it. Wisdom (prajñā, प्रज्ञा) and Compassion (karuā, करुणा) are the two guiding principles in this process of removal of suffering.’

This essay further points out ‘Wisdom and compassion are uniquely human qualities. But wisdom without compassion is empty and compassion without wisdom blind. Therefore, Buddha gives equal importance to both. Wisdom i.e. (prajñā, प्रज्ञा) is defined as an insight in the true nature of reality. Without going into its deep metaphysical meanings in Upaniadic and Buddhist traditions, we may highlight that wisdom lies in carefully examining facts that contradict our beliefs, keeping an open mind rather than being closed-minded, listening to other points of view rather than being bigoted. A person who does this is certainly wise and is certain to arrive at true understanding. The word Compassion is made up of two words, 'co' meaning together and 'passion' meaning a strong feeling. When we see someone in distress and we feel their pain as if it were our own, and strive to eliminate or lessen their pain, then this is compassion. One must understand that all the unique characteristics of human beings, like sharing, readiness to give comfort, sympathy, concern and caring - are all manifestations of nothing but compassion.’

Here, I am also reminded of Mahatma Gandhi, who had elaborately spoken about seven dreaded sins! These sins are Wealth without Work, Pleasure without Conscience, Science without Humanity, Knowledge without Character, Politics without Principles, Commerce without Morality and Worship without Sacrifice! I think, Wisdom without Compassion is the eighth such dreaded sin!

In Western medical ethics, compassion serves mainly to define the responsibilities and duties of medical professionals. In contrast, Eastern medical ethics consider developing compassion as a prerequisite in becoming a physician and recognize its curing effects. In the traditional medicine of Tibet and Mongolia, where Mahayana Buddhism prevails, a physician is seen as an enlightened person who has been thoroughly trained in Buddhist philosophy. In order to become a physician, one should develop compassion, which is considered as a path to enlightenment. Compassion is not a characteristic but a skill used for therapeutic purposes, which should be mastered through training and meditation, stage by stage.

What is essential for becoming a good physician is perhaps more required to become a good ruler, a good administrator. And this is more expected from a leader who is chosen by the people through a democratic process. Which is why, a value system that recognizes the centrality of compassion is a pre-requisite of a successful democratic regime.

Skepticism about the success of democracy became more pronounced after the third wave of democracy of the post- Second World War era. The presumption, that democracy is the best amongst the available forms of governance and it can be a success in any society has proved to be wrong as in certain parts of the world, democracies have either failed completely or proved to be sham democracies.

While the reasons for the widening acceptability of democracy are not too far to seek, with regards to the reasons behind its apparent failures, changing socio-cultural environment is emerging as the prime reason. The changing texture of international politics, the specter of mindless globalisation and its impact on world population and the threat of terror always around the corner are creating a sense of insecurity leading to narrowing of minds and utter insensitivity towards the less privileged or the marginalized.

Extensive surveys conducted by world-renowned research bodies like Pew Research Center have concluded that while ideas at the core of liberal democracy remain popular among global publics, but commitment to democracy is often found to be weak or suspicious. Multiple factors contribute to this lack of commitment, including perceptions about how well democracy is functioning. And as findings from a new Pew Research Center survey show, views about the performance of democratic systems are decidedly negative in many nations. Across 27 countries polled, a median of 51% is dissatisfied with how democracy is working in their country; just 45% are satisfied. Assessments of how well democracy is working vary considerably across nations.

Renowned political scientist and researcher Pippa Norris+ presents a brilliant analysis of the diminishing popular trust in the idea of democracy. She says, ‘...development is most effective where regimes combine the qualities of democratic responsiveness and state effectiveness’.  However, one can easily infer that lack of genuine integrity with the concept of democratic responsiveness gives birth to negligence to State effectiveness and again, without a sense of Compassion towards the people, democratic responsiveness always remains superficial and largely, contrived.  Compassion is a force that demolishes artificial compartments underscoring the essential elements of equality of human beings and on the basis of this equality, unity of human beings as well.

His Holiness Dalai Lama# in one of his writings has said, “The Buddha saw that life's very purpose is happiness. He also saw that while ignorance binds beings in endless frustration and suffering, wisdom is liberating. Modern democracy is based on the principle that all human beings are essentially equal, that each of us has an equal right to life, liberty, and happiness. Buddhism too recognises that human beings are entitled to dignity, that all members of the human family have an equal and inalienable right to liberty, not just in terms of political freedom, but also at the fundamental level of freedom from fear and want. Irrespective of whether we are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or another, to one religion or another, adhering to this ideology or that, each of us is just a human being like everyone else. Not only do we all desire happiness and seek to avoid suffering, but each of us has an equal right to pursue these goals.”

Buddhism is essentially a practical doctrine. In recognizing suffering as the fundamental fact of life, Buddhism lays equal stress on individual and community (society). In addressing the fundamental problem of human suffering, it does not insist on a single solution because human beings are not alike in terms of their needs, dispositions and abilities. But as a community its cohesion springs from a unifying sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. Without any apparent centralized authority Buddhism has endured for more than two thousand five hundred years. It has flourished in a diversity of forms, while repeatedly renewing, through study and practice, its roots in the teachings of the Buddha. This kind of pluralistic approach, in which individuals themselves are responsible, is very much in accord with a democratic outlook of the present times.

Many political scientists have pointed out that for sustainable democratic governance, democratic spirit is an essential ingredient of the cultural milieu of the society of the respective country. Right since the ancient period the ideas of Buddha have provided a strong foundation for democracy in general and democratic governance in particular.

True, that if democracy is about accommodation and rejection of monopolistic approach, adherence to the principles of spiritual democracy is a must. Compassion alone can promote spirit of accommodation and resilience and hence Compassion as a value is critical for the success of democracy!

In this context, it is important to note what Dr B R Ambedkar, a political leader and social reformer in modern India who headed the drafting committee for the Constitution of India has said. According to him, the “religion of the Buddha gives freedom of thought and freedom of self-development to all”, Ambedkar has also rightly argued that “the rise of Buddhism in India was as significant as the French Revolution”

However, the fact remains that for democracy alone may not help what Buddha wanted to achieve. For enduring peace of mind, Happiness is essential. And it was certainly not just a coincidence that the idea of Gross Human Happiness index originated in Bhutan, a country of the worshippers of Buddha. Happiness, although not entirely or solely but largely also depends upon development with ease of living, at its core. In that sense, democracy that delivers development is the need of the hour. Rulers, motivated by the ideals of Buddha and influenced by his idea of Compassion alone can evolve this fundamental commitment to democracy and not just democracy, but democracy that delivers through development and ease of living.

Democracy that brings development to the deprived is singularly important for a world order that will ensure peaceful coexistence of all. In this context what is further required is evolving a new branch of knowledge or discipline of study, where Confluence of Civilisations will be studied in depth and thereby global society will be sensitized about the need for further strengthening the forces of harmony, dialogue, quest for commonalities and pursuit of common good. Herein lies the concept of mutuality and samanvya, which is reflected very prominently in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Before I conclude, I must say that for a world order based on principles of justice and equality, Hindu and Buddhist traditions will have to acquire further strength, become more pronounced and articulate, jointly work for new knowledge creation for generations ahead and in keeping with Buddha’s message, of Atta Deepa Bhav, continue to spread light and eliminate darkness from all over the world. If there is any Ulanbaatar Declaration, I believe it is only this! 




  • A note by Prof Sharad Deshpande, Pune

+ Pippa Norris: ‘Making Democratic Governance Work: How Regimes shape Prosperity, Welfare and Peace 


# Dalai Lama